The opening paragraph of Barack Obama’s December 28, 2016, public proclamation establishing Bears Ears National Monument summarizes the rationale for the designation as follows:
Abundant rock art, ancient cliff dwellings, ceremonial sites, and countless other artifacts provide an extraordinary archaeological and cultural record that is important to us all, but most notably the land is profoundly sacred to many Native American tribes, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah Ouray, Hopi Nation, and Zuni Tribe” (my emphasis).
First enumerating the genres of “antiquities” present in Bears Ears that license his use of the Antiquities Act of 1906 to set aside parcels of government owned or controlled land as national monuments, Obama subsequently employs a contrastive coordinating conjunction (“but”) and superlative phrasing (“most notably”) to highlight and to prioritize a second warrant for the designation, which is that “the land is profoundly sacred to many Native American tribes”—notably the five that compose the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (BEITC), which formed in July 2015 explicitly to coordinate advocacy in support of the monument’s creation.
Though this formal acknowledgement of BEITC’s specification of Bears Ears as belonging to, in Navajo phrasing, the diné bikéyah (“people’s sacred lands”) is significant, BEITC’s particular demarcation of the sacred in this matter ultimately is not the monument’s efficient cause. Absent the exercise of executive power, much of Bears Ears would remain susceptible to “destruction, desecration, and violation from irresponsible motorized travel, energy development, mining, uneducated visitors, and looting of ancestral sites and burials” (Zuni Tribal Council Resolution No. M70-2016-P014; March 7, 2016). As is amply attested in BEITC’s archive of tribal resolutions and letters of support, the particular protections that accrue to national monument status require the president’s formal recognition of the lands’ “historic or scientific interest” to the United States, i.e., on grounds other than that Native Americans have named them sacred.
While in the logic of American governmentality the BEITC’s claim of Bears Ears’ sacrality is immaterial, Obama’s inflection of the parallel warrants manages to credit it and to do so under the auspices of a legislative instrument (and a system of public land management) that, in the long view, has been anything but sensitive to the voices and lived religions of Native American peoples. BEITC’s speech act is complexly efficacious, but at a remove: absent Obama’s recognition and willingness to use available means, it, in isolation, would not effect its primary political aim of winning national monument status for Bears Ears, preserving the lands’ place among the nahodishgish (“places to be left alone”).
Taking some liberty with the precise definition of “text,” Bears Ears National Monument, in its original and present incarnations, is thus an instructive site for thinking towards an answer to this forum’s organizing question: “What are the political implications of naming a text sacred?” To consider this question is to go looking for an instance (here: Bears Ears), and then to find a host of ancillary questions that bear on any answer one might give in reply. Perhaps most crucially, one needs to know by whose authority any particular “text” is so named.
In Authority: Construction and Corrosion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), historian of religions Bruce Lincoln defines authority as “an effect…of the conjuncture of the right speaker, the right speech and delivery, the right staging and props, the right time and place, and an audience whose historically and culturally conditioned expectations establish the parameters of what is judged ‘right’ in all these instances” (10-11). Thinking with this definition, one among the reasons the BEITC’s speech act is authoritative is that it reflects the consensus judgment of a broad coalition of Native American tribes and organizations, which pressed the case for Bears Ears in politic ways for the better part of a decade. Centrally, though, it finds a receptive audience in Obama because it accords with the forty-fourth president’s conservationist agenda and his orientation towards the (lamentable) American history of Native American affairs. In turn, Obama’s proclamation is authoritative because it conjoins active executive power, the Antiquities Act of 1906, the presence of myriad “antiquities” within Bears Ears’ 1.3 million acres, the Oval Office, and the presidential pen.
Those who have followed the saga of Bears Ears National Monument know, of course, that the story does not end on December 28, 2016. Reacting to the proclamation, then-Congressman Jason Chaffetz (Rep., Utah) decried Obama’s designation of the “midnight monument,” referring not to the fact that the undeveloped remoteness of Bears Ears allows one, “against an absolutely black night sky,” to observe “our galaxy and others more distant” but to the fact that the monument was established in the twilight hours of the Obama presidentiad. He added, “We look forward to working with President-elect Trump to follow through on his commitment to repeal midnight regulations.” In other words, Chaffetz challenges Obama’s establishment of Bears Ears on the grounds that the proclamation was not made at “the right time.”
President Trump took up the issue of Bears Ears as part of his administration’s broad-scaled effort to repeal the Obama legacy, and this eventuated in Trump’s December 4, 2017, proclamation “Modifying the Bears Ears National Monument,” which reduced the size of Bears Ears to just over 200,000 acres (comprising two sections: Shash Jáa and Indian Creek). Like Obama’s proclamation, Trump’s cites the Antiquities Act as its authorizing discourse, and the argument for modification turns on the act’s specification that a national monument “shall be confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” As argued, most of the antiquities in the newly-excluded lands “were then—and still are—subject to Federal protections under existing laws and agency management designations”: Obama overkilled and overreached.
With respect to BEITC’s claim of Bears Ears’ sacrality, Trump’s proclamation gives and takes. On the one hand—and even while the presence of Native Americans’ perspectives and hopes is much diminished in this document—its description of Shash Jáa partially preserves the original proclamation’s act of recognition, specifying that the area includes “the iconic twin buttes known as the Bears Ears that tower 2,000 feet above the surrounding landscape and are considered sacred to the Native American tribes that call this area their ancestral home.” On the other hand, and contra BEITC’s concern to preserve the totality of Bears Ears (1.9 million acres in BEITC’s original proposal) against the appetite of big energy, the proclamation opens “public and National Forest System lands excluded from the monument” to “disposition under all laws relating to mineral and geothermal leasing; and location, entry, and patent under the mining laws.”
I sketch the post-Obama history of Bears Ears National Monument because it, too, is a political implication of a naming-sacred, though not the one with which I’ve been primarily concerned in the foregoing. As much as Obama’s original proclamation countenances and honors the BEITC’s claim to Bears Ears’ sacrality, it simultaneously brings the monument in to the ambit of traditional American civil religion—that “collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in [the American national] collectivity,” complete with “its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places.” That national parks and monuments feature among traditional American civil religion’s “sacred places” is an argument all its own (towards this, see Lynn Ross-Bryant’s Pilgrimage to the National Parks: Religion and Nature in the United States [New York, Routledge, 2013]), but riffing on Durkheim’s contention that the division of the world in to sacred and profane things is the fundament of religious belief, one might note simply that these spaces are (or at least have been) America’s version of the nahodishgish. Owned by everyone and by no one, they are, too, metonyms of Democracy (Whitmanian capitalization intended).
Obama’s “Presidential Proclamation—Establishment of the Bears Ears National Monument” is both a political implication of a naming-sacred (i.e., BEITC’s) and a naming-sacred with its own effects. It enlarged the territory of traditional American civil religion, and it inflected the narration thereof with the deft (and situationally ironic) recognition and inclusion of Native American voices. Less happily, in my view, it made Bears Ears a target of the Trump administration and of another version of American civil religion that has ever been with us, wherein nothing is sacred save money and the having it.
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